Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the November 7, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Human Rights in Jeopardy
Justice Not Revenge" is the first headline carried
on Amnesty International’s website linked to a section devoted to
the September 11 terrorist attacks against thousands of American
Yet Amnesty’s site carries a portrait photograph of Mexican human
rights lawyer Digna Ochoa y Placido, murdered on October 19. Ochoa
was shot at close range in her office in downtown Mexico City. A note
left behind warned that other lawyers that they would be next.
Such cruel events, large and small, are nothing new to William F.
Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA. Schulz has
recently published "In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human
Rights Benefits Us All" (Beacon Press; $25). He gives a talk at
Princeton University’s Frist Student Center Theater on Monday,
12, at 7 p.m.
Schulz’s appearance is co-sponsored by the Princeton U-Store and
International Group 67 of Mercer County, an active area group, now
in its 27th year, that meets monthly, led by group coordinator Sophia
Bounds. The group also hosts actor Danny Glover, who speaks in support
of Amnesty’s campaign against the death penalty, on Thursday, November
15, at 8 p.m.
Schulz’s "In Our Own Best Interest," published in April,
eight thematic essays that bring us face to face with people and
around the globe that we customarily prefer to ignore. Chilling at
any time, it is particularly so in light of the terror and strife
we have experienced since September 11. Amnesty’s strategy has always
been to put human faces on human rights crimes, and Schulz opens his
preface with one of many intimate stories he has to tell, this one
set in Pakistan, in cities with which many Americans have suddenly
become acquainted — Peshawar and Lahore.
Schulz tells of the plight of Samia Sarwar, a young woman from
Pakistan, who, married at 16, attempted to flee her violent marriage.
Denied by her family to divorce, an action believed to bring disgrace,
Sarwar fled to women’s shelter established in Lahore by women’s rights
lawyer Hina Jilani. There she was murdered by members of her own
Individual struggles and the adversities of thousands of others like
them have a profound impact on Americans, Schulz argues. "When
their dreams die, our health and security die with them."
Amnesty International, a human rights organization with
over a million members worldwide, and chapters in over 140 countries
and territories, was founded in London, in 1961 by lawyer Peter
Members have campaigned for the release of people imprisoned for the
expression of opinions, protesting ethnic and religious persecution,
ending the use of torture, and abolishing the death penalty.
An ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, Schulz came to Amnesty
International in 1994 after serving for 15 years with the Unitarian
Universalist Association of Congregations, the last eight (1985-93)
as president of that association. There he became involved in social
justice causes and led humanitarian missions in Romania, India, the
Middle East, and Northern Ireland.
We asked Schulz whether the current crisis we find ourselves in is
related to questions of human rights. "Unfortunately there is
a very direct relationship between the thesis that I propound in this
book and the crisis in which we find our selves," replies Schulz.
"Although what I’m about to say is in no way an excuse for the
crimes against humanity that were committed, it is important to
why extremism has found such fertile ground in places like Saudi
Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Pakistan.
"The reality is that people on the streets in those countries
have seen enormous corruption among their governments. They see their
leaders enjoying wealth beyond their wildest imaginations, while they
experience profound poverty. When you couple those situations with
a lack of democratic change through non-violent means, in which people
can express their sense of corruption and poverty, no independent
press, no legal system, no viable opposition parties, when those who
express differences of opinion are subject to imprisonment, or
When, in short, you have no human rights, the people who are suffering
look to the only organized movement that appears to be speaking to
their needs and fears — and that has been religious extremism.
That is a very direct correlation between a violation of human rights
and the September 11 crisis."
The first codifying of human rights came in 1948 with the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, a document whose evolution Schulz traces
to the codes of the Babylonian king Hammurabi, to the Roman concept
of citizens’ rights, the Magna Carta in England, and the Bill of
in America. Schulz maintains that concepts such as cultural,
or national difference have very little sway on the question of human
"Human rights values are not American values," he says.
rights values are not prescribed by the U.S. Constitution, they are
prescribed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Every nation
that joins the United Nations implicitly agrees to abide by the
Declaration of Human Rights. And those rights are also considered
customary international law. These are universal values that transcend
any particular culture.
"It is not an excuse for any country to say, `It is our custom
here to accept bribes or it is our custom to deny a free press.’ Or
even `It is our custom to chop off the hands of thieves.’ Custom is
trumped by the Universal Declaration and its prohibition on cruel
and inhuman punishment. Many countries’ constitutions contain
of various rights which they, the governments themselves, are
So much has changed since Amnesty’s founding in 1961, and human rights
violations have taken new directions, both positive and negative.
"Since 1961 we’ve seen a difference in positive ways: When Amnesty
was founded, there were many prisoners of conscience — that is
someone, in our terms, who is imprisoned for his or her non-violent
political or religious beliefs or because they belong to a particular
tribe, or a journalist who has angered their government. There are
fewer prisoners of conscience now than there were then. Also, fewer
countries are practicing the death penalty today; in fact a majority
of governments do not allow it," he says.
"On the negative side, there is a higher percentage — almost
three-fourths — of countries that practice torture today than
did so in 1961. So while countries are holding fewer high-profile
prisoners of conscience, they are practicing torture." Torture
has become a target for Amnesty activists, a practice that is
to combat because it usually takes place in hiding.
"Torture now takes place most frequently against people
not for political reasons, but who belong to a certain ethnic group
or who are seen as some kind of threat to the government," says
Schulz. "These are not necessarily the high-profile people of
the ’60s and ’70s. They may even be common criminals convicted of
everyday crimes — that is, people forgotten by the system or
the general public thinks deserves their torture. In the ’60s and
’70s government prisoners were often seen as heroes, but this is no
longer the case."
America is by no means immune from Amnesty’s scrutiny and criticism.
Schulz says the U.S. houses more prisoners per capita than any country
in the world, with the possible exception of Russia, a total of some
2 million. It also has a larger percentage of women in prison than
"Women make up 15 percent of U.S. prisoners today, a sharp
largely because of the drug laws," he says. "And women are
likely to be sexually mistreated while in prison. Amnesty
documented a report this year on the treatment of women in prisons
that found sexual mistreatment in 49 of the 50 states. Women in prison
are forced into prostitution rings, forced to trade sex for needed
medical services, sometimes even forced into sex with male
Born in 1949, Schulz grew up in Pittsburgh, an only
child. His father was a professor of law at University of Pittsburgh,
working mainly in criminal law. His mother was a homemaker. He grew
up as a third generation Unitarian Universalist, now married to the
Reverend Beth Graham, also a Unitarian Universalist minister. They
live on Long Island where his wife serves a congregation.
He says that, from an early age, his direction was not law but the
ministry. He became interested in the ministry in high school and,
as a student at Oberlin College, he pursued various student ministry
opportunities in Ohio.
"While I was at Oberlin, the Unitarian Universalist congregation
in Kent, Ohio, a small church of about 80 members, was in between
full-time ministers, and they hired me for a year to serve the
This was in 1970; the year state troopers shot and killed students
at Kent State University during an anti-war demonstration. Although
Schulz says his life’s path was well established during this shocking
time, it had a profound impact on him.
"My parents were both very politically conscious. My father was
active in the Civil Liberties Union — this was the era of civil
rights and the Vietnam War. So the Kent State events, while certainly
profoundly important, were one of a series of growthful events that
"Throughout high school I was involved in anti-war vigils and
demonstrations. Kent was very dramatic and personal. I was there and
students were killed. Certainly, in retrospect, it informed the kind
of work I do today, which is to try to set limits to governments’
ability to harm their own citizens."
Schulz graduated from Oberlin, earned an M.A. in philosophy from the
University of Chicago, and an M.A. in theology and a Doctor of
from the Meadville/Lombard Theological School of the University of
Chicago. An ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, he served as
president of the Unitarian Universality Association of Congregations
for 15 years, where he was involved in social justice causes and led
humanitarian missions in Romania, India, the Middle East, and Northern
How does a professional working daily with human cruelty keep their
spirits up, we ask.
"Part of my religious training, and conviction, and faith, is
that life is complex and rich," says Schulz. "And part of
the secret of life is to lead a balanced life that allows us to
that sometimes the joyous can emerge in the midst of our tears. I
try to live that balance in my own life: I both cultivate attention
to painful events in my work and cultivate some of the pleasures we
can take in life.
"Also, in my job I meet a great many people who are
inspiring. There may be many reasons for this, but they are often
people who have experienced horrors beyond my imagination —
it be imprisonment, torture, threats to their loved ones — and
yet they are often people who have emerged whole, people who have
lived rich and complex lives and who are still in the struggle.
"These are people who have not retreated, but who have had the
courage to step back into the whirling complexities of their lives.
So I feel the least I can do is to be of support to them and to use
what ever talents I may have for speaking or organizing or fundraising
to support lives that have been a model human dignity and human
"Digna Ochoa is a good example of that. I did not know her well,
but I had met with her and we had worked with her. In fact Amnesty
gave her our `Enduring Spirit’ award last year in Los Angeles. Here’s
a person who had already experienced a kidnapping; she knew she was
under threat; yet she didn’t flee.
"Despite all that had been thrown at her, she was unwilling to
escape or run away, she was committed to pursuing the good fight,
and she ended up paying with her life," says Schulz. "So I
try to keep my life in balance enough that I not become discouraged,
and that I not become unwilling to do my small part in that
— Nicole Plett
Center, Room 301, 609-921-8500. The author of "In Our Own Best
Interest" gives a talk co-sponsored by the Princeton U-Store and
Amnesty International Group 67 of Mercer County. www.amnesty.org.
Free. Monday, November 12, 7 p.m.
Execution: The Death Penalty in America," a talk sponsored by
Amnesty International Mercer County and New Jerseyans for a Death
Penalty Moratorium. Thursday, November 15, 8 p.m.
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